Science in Society Archive

Beware Corporate Takeover of Organics

While science thugs and Oxford dons are busy attacking organics in the public arena, the corporate paymasters may be engineering a takeover. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports on her visit to Inverness, Scotland, in August, where eleven have subsequently been arrested, and six charged, for placing themselves in the path of the tractor planting GM seeds. The fields have been planted, but a 24h vigil continues.

One of the arrested is Donnie Macleod, who manages a 600 organic box scheme for local inhabitants from his 130 acre farm, less than a hundred yards from the beach, where he also runs bed and breakfast, organic café and shop. Donnie is also chairman of the Highlands & Islands Organic Association representing fifty-six organic farmers and processors in the region, covering 4000 acres. Many are already contributing to the box scheme, and more are set to join in.

Like a large number of farmers in Britain, Donnie converted to organic quite recently, in his case three years ago, when his father became ill and he came home to the farm, and has since taken on his new life with great conviction and determination.

"We work on a food hierarchy system", he explained as we drove through some of the most beautiful countryside on the way to the rally, the sun was shining after weeks of rain, and the air was sparkling fresh. "We supply local produce as far as possible, but if the customer wants something that we don't have locally, we get it from the nearest supplier within the country, then in Europe; and if necessary, then the rest of the world."

That's a compromise, he admitted, because he takes minimising 'food miles' very seriously. The vast distances food is currently shipped from field to the plate contribute a lot to carbon dioxide emission and global warming. But it was important to accept that in order to win the customers he must respect their choice and meet their demand. Otherwise, they would be forced back into the hands of the supermarkets when local produce simply is not there.

Donnie is a wiry man of medium height, in his forties, perhaps, sporting red shirt and blue jeans. He has become a local celebrity, if somewhat reluctantly, in the campaign against the local field trials of GM oilseed rape in Roskil Farm at Munlochy, Black Isle. He pointed to a hill on an island across the pristine Munlochy Bay surrounded by greenery. What a desecration! I thought of the new bird species I had already spotted since I arrived, and the glufosinate herbicide runoffs into the bay…

A further two fields will be planted in Aberdeenshire farms at Daviot and Rothienorman. Both the Munlochy and Aberdeenshire sites belong to a single family, a rather wealthy gentleman farmer, who has refused to listen or to give up the trials. People are overwhelmingly against the field trials, and they are very angry. There has been little or no public consultation. "The fields were planted last year as we were having the first public meeting," Donnie recalled. And it is not because the local government does not respect the people.

"The Scottish Highlands Council has voted against the field trials at least three times. All the Members of Parliament and Members of European Parliament have also declared themselves against the field trials." Has devolution of Scotland meant nothing? "No, we were told GM trials are not a devolved issue!"

The fields on the Black Isle are up wind of a burgeoning organic area. "They've done it on purpose, to destroy organic farming," said Donnie.

The mass rally attracted more than 500 of all ages. The march that preceded the rally was a sight to behold. The marchers, or rather, strollers, five or more abreast, extending easily a mile, snaked along like a festive dragon adorned with yellow balloons and bristling with placards and banners. Bagpipe and drums were playing, and children with painted faces, holding balloons, shaking rattles, skipping and dancing without a care in the world.

Was it a conspiracy that all the GM field trials in the UK seem to be near organic farms? Or is it just that organic farms are popping up everywhere? It is generally believed that the corporate agenda is to contaminate the organic produce so widely that people will have no choice but to accept GM. The European Commission's long-awaited regulations on labelling and traceability of GM food and ingredients adopted in July, sets a 1% threshold for 'unavoidable' contamination in products labelled 'non-GMO'. But the major organic certification bodies, such as the Soil Association and the Scottish Organic Producers Association (SOPA), are insisting on 'zero tolerance' for GM contamination.

Under pressure from the United States, there are already moves to raise the EU threshold even further to 5% contamination for GMOs that have been approved, and 1% for unapproved GMOs.

That is not all. Behind the scenes, there appears to be concerted machinations by corporate business and the UK government to undermine the existing organic certification controlled by farmers and primary producers, and to place it under the control of industry. The fear is that organic standards will become diluted, and further down the line, even GM may be accepted as organic.

An opening was created when SOPA's certification officer, Carolyn Beatty, resigned after many years of service at the end of 2000. The Board of SOPA was undecided as to whether to replace her and continue the certification scheme, or to sub-contract out certification to another organisation such as the Soil Association. SOPA has been negotiating with the Soil Association for a joint initiative, Organic Scotland. And the membership of SOPA gave a clear mandate to that at its last annual general meeting.

However, a wild card emerged from within the Board of SOPA, to subcontract the certification to Scottish Food Quality Certification Ltd (SFQC), a wholly owned subsidiary of Checkmate International (CMI). Neither SFQC nor CMI has had any special experience or qualification in organic certification. Their clients are the Supermarkets, and not the end users or farmers.

CMI's corporate stature is increasingly evident when it recently applied to UKROFS (the Government body that oversees organic certification) to become an organic certifier. It has already been granted this status.

In January this year, certain Board members of SOPA took it upon themselves to send a letter persuading the membership to vote for subcontracting to SFQC, before the full Board including the Chairman, had the chance to meet and discuss the options.

In April, SOPA announced it has subcontracted organic certification to SFQC, to the dismay of the Scottish organic farming community and the Soil Association.

It is not just the dilution of organic standards that's at stake. It is compromising a whole philosophy, a way of life committed to working with natural biological cycles, in soils, crops and livestock, to enhance the environment and avoid pollution; and to build up consumer trust. It is not primarily or only a business.

This could well be the most important science war of this century, and it will be fought in local communities all over the world, with people braving arrests and harassment.

Meanwhile, the mangetous peas and pale round zuchinis I bought from Donnie's shop were absolutely delicious. And I just bit into the orange beetroot, which is inspiration itself. Wonder what else will grow in the Scottish Highlands, or here in my garden in London…

Article first published 29/08/01

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